Documentation obtained by the Wall Street Journal shows that a number of electronic components powering the Iranian-made Mohajer-6 drones used by Russian forces in Ukraine were actually produced in the United States and other allied nations. In order to make these discoveries, it is claimed that the Ukrainian military ‘hacked’ one of the drones while in flight and ‘landed’ it where it was then recovered and inspected by Ukrainian military intelligence officials. Other Iranian drones downed by Ukrainian forces have been and continue to be inspected, and the ongoing investigation points to serious vulnerabilities in the global supply chain that are allowing adversarial nations like Iran to gain from the West’s technological advancements.
Iran first began supplying Russian forces with combat drones early this fall. Just weeks after rumors suggested that the weapons transfer had begun, the drones started making their appearance in Ukraine in big ways. The first hard evidence that Iran’s Shahed-136 loitering munition, also referred to as a ‘kamikaze’ drone due to its dive-bomb attacks that destroy not only its target but the aircraft itself in the process, had begun striking targets in Ukraine emerged in September. At least one Mohajer-6 reconnaissance and attack drone was also downed and recovered by Ukrainian forces that month, which was later dissected for inspection, but is unclear if this is the same uncrewed aircraft at the center of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report.
According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) piece, which is worth its own read, the recent findings gathered by Ukrainian intelligence reveal that approximately three-quarters of the electronics discovered inside captured Iranian drones employed against Ukraine were made in the United States. WSJ noted that each of the components identified by Ukrainian military intelligence was then verified by the Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (NAKO), which is a Kyiv-based nonprofit that seeks to reduce opportunities for corruption in the Ukrainian defense sector by reviewing military contracts and arms. These findings are especially noteworthy considering the strict international sanctions that have been imposed against Iran, as it suggests that either the proper sanctions aren’t being implemented or that Tehran is more than capable of skirting them, which in itself isn’t all that surprising .
As for the Mohajer-6 specifically, NAKO was reportedly able to discern that from the over 200 distinct components found inside the drone, about half were manufactured by US-based companies while just under a third seemed to have come from Japan. These parts include the Mohajer-6’s servomotors that allow its operators to maneuver the drone while in flight, which NAKO found to be manufactured by Japan’s Tonegawa-Seiko Co.
Tonegawa-Seiko, which was already in hot water with Japan’s Trade Ministry for exporting servomotors to China without a permit that were later found aboard a separate Iranian drone, has yet to respond to WSJ‘s request for comment. The firm has in the past said that they were unaware the parts would end up in Iran, according to today’s report.
A number of other unspecified Mohajer-6 components discovered by NAKO include those produced by the Germany-based company Infineon Technologies AG and Microchip Technology Inc. located in Arizona. Both companies have since responded to the charges. Microchip spokesman Brian Thorsen insisted that the company takes the necessary measures to screen customers and maintain supply-chain integrity, but that there are third-party distributors that sell their products globally. An unidentified Infineon spokesman responded by saying simply that the company doesn’t sell any of its products to Iran.
The captured Mohajer-6 was also apparently toting a high-resolution telescopic infrared lens intended for surveillance and targeting that WSJ described as being identical to a device produced by the Israel-based Ophir Optronics Solutions Ltd. WSJ reached this conclusion by reviewing photos of the part as it appeared inside the Mohajer-6, as well as by referencing information from corporate brochures. The outlet said that they reached out for comment, but the company reportedly declined.
This discovery initially led Ukrainian military intelligence officials to believe that the device was manufactured by the Oregon-based Sierra-Olympic Technologies Inc., as the firm is a known user of Ophir lenses. However, Chris Johnston, Sierra-Olympic’s founder and chief executive, was allowed to view the same photos in NAKO’s report that WSJ analyzed and was able to come to the conclusion that even though the component uses some of the same parts, others were still different from Ophir’s own product. While ostensibly debunked, the uncertainty only underscores how difficult it can be to trace back the true origins of these electronics.
“Mr. Johnston said his firm declined purchase requests made several years ago by an Iranian national and alerted federal authorities,” read the WSJ article. “But the Iranians could have obtained parts from Western military aircraft downed in Iraq and Afghanistan or from intermediaries, he said.”
WSJ claimed that it reached out to US export control entities for comment, but official confirmations on the source of these products weren’t provided to the outlet. Iran’s Mission to the United Nations, however, did respond to WSJ and said that Tehran “is ready to meet with Ukraine at the level of technical experts and investigate drone-or parts-ownership claims.”
NAKO also found that many of the components that make up the Iranian drones used in Ukraine are not under export controls, which would make it easy for virtually anyone in Iran to buy the parts online using sites like Alibaba. While WSJ pointedly noted that this is still in violation of international law, the outlet cited Western security officials in saying that such actions are unfortunately difficult to prevent as the orders are typically shipped through countries that aren’t as closely monitored as Iran.
A study that the Institute for Science and International Security published in October, which the WSJ highlighted in its report today, revealed how there is also evidence that nations like China are developing counterfeit copies of these Western components and transferring them to Iran, which could be another means through which these types of electronics are appearing in Iranian drones.
This is an issue that has come up with regard to the Austria-based company Rotax, as well. Rotax is a subsidiary of the Canadian company Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP), which is known for designing the engines that power snowmobiles, watercraft, motorcycles, aircraft, and a significant number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In late October, a Rotax engine was discovered aboard one of the first Iranian Mohajer-6 drones downed in Ukraine. Rotax has been the victim of a years-long theft wave of its engines, which could be one of a number of sources for the engines.
Needless to say, the increasing scope and scale of global industrial supply chains present inherent challenges when it comes to trying to restrict the flow of certain technologies. Holes in export laws, sanction skirting, and the complications that companies face when tracing their products down the chain of custody are all factors that contribute to the possibility of Western components ending up in the wrong hands. Not only that but, as the WSJ notes, most other governments including European nations haven’t imposed the same strict sanctions against Iran that the United States has. In fact, the United States will only be further strengthening its defenses in this regard. As the WSJ itself reported, the US Treasury Department announced new sanctions just yesterday against multiple Iranian, Russian, and United Arab Emirates companies and individual actors identified as being responsible for the production and transfer of the Iranian drones Russia is employing in Ukraine.
On top of that, the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security is one of the primary entities leading an investigation into the origins of these Western parts. When speaking to WSJan unnamed senior Commerce Department official said only that “the proliferation of weapons into Ukraine for use against Ukrainian people is a top priority for us, and we’re going to investigate any illegal export that might be connected with that effort.”
For years, The War Zone has underscored the need to better control the flow of seemingly benign components that could be used to create very troublesome low-tech UAVs. The harsh reality of this issue appears to be highlighted by the conflict in Ukraine. In addition, The War Zone was among the first to report that high-end Russian weapons, including cruise missiles used against Ukraine, were also found to be packed with Western electronics.
It remains to be seen how well additional sanctions, improved export controls, and other measures that countries like the United States are taking will actually help curb the flow of these components to hostile actors, but the issue is certainly centerstage now.